Whisky’s intrinsic relationship with the concept of the passage of time is a deeply-rooted yet oft-times rolled-out trope. Outside of the obvious physical requirements of making something and then for all intents and purposes leaving it alone – the industry has perennially gathered around the notion that ‘good whisky is worth waiting for’ – at least for three years. Whilst nowadays time is all too often wrapped up into the idea of the age statement – its application and its historic utilisation cuts far deeper. If you look back to the earliest whisky advertisements of the late 19th Century (all for blends and many that you’d nowadays mark as NAS), you’ll see the regular employment of words such as “old”, “slowly”, “patiently” and “unhurriedly” – all to some degree of truisms of the whisky making process itself - and none having left the modern-day lexicon. But nevertheless, throughout the spirit’s long history the idea of time has been repeatedly deployed to plant the acorn of an idea that it is synonymous with whisky.
Speaking of acorns, there’s one currently growing on my kitchen window sill. But whilst much of the spirit I’m witnessing being laid down today will more than likely be bottled during my lifetime – were this acorn to develop into a fully mature tree ready for harvesting, I’d have *long* been pushing up the daisies. It takes around 80 years for an American white oak to grow to maturity. You can add another 70-120 years to this figure for French and European species. My acorn is from Scotland…..and given a little love and more years than I’ve got, it might grow into a mature Scotch oak. You won’t be surprised to learn that given Scotland’s climactic conditions we’re into the longer side of tree lifespans – but more on this shortly. Laying down spirit for decades pales into comparison when you start to think about the planning and management required for the forestry required to support the industry.
If whisky is a long-game played out over a lifetime. Oak and casks are an epic chronicle played out over generations.
All too often enthusiasts fail to grasp that tight-fisted allocations are simply part-and-parcel of long-term whisky stewardship. Whilst I daresay that distilleries could dig far deeper into their inventories to sate current demands – in doing so, they would be leaving a dearth for their successors. Stock management is crucial to a distillery’s long-term sustainability – both in terms of the depths of its necessarily smaller aged stocks, as well as its ability to blend and bottle consistently. Whilst governments will regularly empty the coffers before their inheritors take over to find the well dry – whisky producers tend to show far more foresight and much greater respect for both their heirs and for preserving time-honoured traditions.
Drinkers, despite a continued and growing clamour for transparency tend more towards the black and white when it comes to actual information. “Was it filled previously with bourbon or sherry?” is droned immeasurably more frequently than “Is it Quercus robur or Quercus alba?” I.E. American or European oak. It’s a similarly binary comparison – only to my mind a far more interesting one. The profound effect that wood species has on the inherent properties of the final composition of a whisky seems to have been somewhat swept under the carpet – at least in terms of the more commonly used cask types. It is perhaps provocative that people will ask where the barley used to make a whisky comes from – but never the geographic origin of the trees used to make the casks that that same whisky spends the majority of its life in. Transparency….but only to a point please.
Perhaps this contradiction is gradually changing. Limousin, Hungarian, Mizunara and several others species of oak, including Scottish have all entered the psyche of the whisky enthusiast as offering something different. Perhaps in part due to being marketed as such – but nevertheless expressions forged outside of the dichotomy of American and European oak can be seen to being both offered and also received differently. And that gives me some hope that in the future more by-lines might be written about both the impact of oak (over and above of the precursor liquid that was filled into it) and particularly about those whose job it is to manage the procurement and planning of distillery wood policies.
Whyte & MacKay’s dalliance with Scottish oak will be a far more lengthy relationship than I have with my kitchen acorn. The producer’s utilisation of native wood involves both the sourcing of existing local trees (ready felled) for cask making as well as some incredibly long-term planning with the planting of trees around the Fettercairn estate. If you consider my acorn an endurance race (which I will cannot win) then the producer’s Scottish oak programme is more akin to an ironman marathon.
Whisky is full of romanticisms – perhaps none more so than when a whisky maker bottles the spirit that was laid down by their now departed forebears. This is three steps beyond that. The Scottish oak which is being established now will not be ready for turning into casks for three generations. Mindboggling.
Alongside this generational investment is of course plenty of current-day exploration. There is a wealth of experimentation and learning taking place at Fettercairn. Some fundamental in terms of the properties of Scottish oak – its consistency, porosity and raw and processed costs – and some more personally driven I.E. how does it taste when imbued with either the distillery’s spirit or ready-matured whisky. And my limited experience has shown me that the impacts of this wood type should not be under-estimated. It is perhaps more profound than any (within the Quercus species at least) that I have tasted to date.
All species of wood have inherent properties that mark them out as unique. And each in turn needs to be considered individually. I.E. if you’re filling mizunara and leaving it alone without monitoring it for leaks, you’re pretty much an idiot. Scottish oak is *highly* extractive. Tasting several examples from casks - from virgin through to those which have had a seasoning with new spirit just to ‘flush them out’ the results to my palate were both incredibly potent but also notably distinctive. Even a year inside of a Scottish oak cask is potentially enough to tip a spirit over into being over-extracted. All useful learning seeing as my work at Dunphail will at some point crossover into Scottish oak (albeit on a far smaller scale than that of Whyte & Mackay and Fettercairn). Scottish oak is not for newbies.
Nevertheless in experimenting with Scottish oak, the producer has added another crayon to its whisky making box. I doubt that this crayon will be seen (ever?) as a full-term maturation – at least not alone as a 1st fill. However, similarly to utilising chilli in a dish, a component can be used to add depth, breath and complexity to the other flavours that sit around it. This is how I’m viewing the future of Scottish oak – as a distinctive member of a wider orchestra – not as a soloist.
Outside of Fettercairn’s inspirational long game – which I see as a mark of respect for the future generations (similarly to long-term cask planning), as it will be those whisky makers who will be the ones able to utilise the fruits of today’s labours – comes the implementation of Scottish oak within the distillery’s current resurgence as a producer. And here my thoughts are somewhat more mixed. On the one-hand the use of Scottish oak within the distillery’s recently launched 18 year old helps the expression stand out – both in terms of its bottled character and also with regards to its proposition to the market. It has a current real uniqueness. But on the other, the asking price for the bottle feels like it has perhaps gone just as native as the oak itself.
Fettercairn’s history as a single malt has not always been plain sailing. Even its modern-day renaissance was a touch awkward – at one point offering customers a eye-openingly large gulf between the entry-point 12 year old and an aspirationally priced 28 year expression. However in the years since, the producer has plugged the gaps in its range and now is regularly well-received by the market. The days of Fettercairn being seen as an also-ran are over. The distillery is making nice things which whisky drinkers are responding positively to. However, to my mind there’s a world apart from successfully reviving the fortunes of the distillery and of ratcheting it into the position of being seen as one of the world’s leading whisky marques. And whilst that might not take as long as growing a Scottish oak, it doesn’t happen overnight.
The recently released 18 year old has been matured in a combination of 1st fill and refill American oak ex-bourbon casks before being finished in Scottish oak. If I remember correctly, that finish (likely in pre-stripped casks) was around 12 months – and as you’ll see from my notes below, it has added a palpable character to the whisky itself. Scottish oak is not a gimmick in terms of flavour. But with an RRP of £175 this release has got me wondering whether Whyte & Mackay believes that whilst oak is nurtured over decades and centuries, reputations can be grown in mere months.
I daresay that whisky drinkers won’t mind paying a premium for the addition of Scottish oak – but I do wonder how many of them would be willing to stump up for a price which is far higher than most of the currently available 18 year old expressions on the market – some of which (HP 18, Bunna 18, Bowmore 18 etc) are incredibly well-established and beloved. That said, you will find some very broad variance in the pricing of this release depending on where you are in the world. From 138,66 € over in Germany through £165 in the UK via Whisky Exchange all the way to 199.95€ in the Netherlands.
Nose: Rather appealing. Dried apricot, mango, papaya and orange rind sit alongside fresh baked tart cases and newly roasted espresso beans. Shaved chocolate and candied almonds are joined by piquant spices – ginger and cloves. The addition of water presents orange fool creaminess alongside a squeeze of lime juice and a handful of chopped hazelnuts.
Taste: The arrival is rich, fulsome and most certainly oak-forward. Apricot, cinnamon and olive oil cake together with a pineapple-led fruit salad are swiftly enveloped in a blanket of ginger, clove, paprika, menthol and eucalyptus before the development reveals golden cereals, Wispa bars, Caramac, Vanilla cupcakes and leatherette. There’s both a familiarity and a real sense of distinctiveness here. Dilution might make you initially nervous given how woody things are to begin with – however the results are surprisingly pleasing – mango juice, golden syrup and malt loaf – there’s some play here.
Finish: Medium to long and packed full of cask influence – char, chilli and steeped tea dryness alongside digestive biscuits and the last vestiges of a tropically fruit core.
Fettercairn 18 year old presents as an old fashioned whisky wrapped up in a modern new cloak. Given how extractive Scottish oak is, the Fettercairn team have done a remarkable job here maintaining its influence to be tangible and sympathetic, but not at any point over-wrought and bogged down in wood tannins. There’s a lot to enjoy here – from the bright and fruity Fettercairn distillery character which many enthusiasts are now starting to truly enjoy, through to a depth and breadth of flavour that all good 18 year old expressions should offer. If only the pricing had been considered with the same long-term game in mind as the Scottish oak itself and I'd say we'd truly be onto a real winner.
Review sample provided by Richmond Towers on behalf of Whyte & Mackay